I wrote about this last back in 2013 and nothing has really changed in the 5 years since then. Yes, you could 3D-print a gun. And, yes, if you did so you’re likely to have it explode in your face. But, more significantly, you could just as easily, if not more so, pay a visit to your local hardware store and buy all the things you need to make a gun with just as much utility.
Guns are simply not clever bits of engineering at their most basic. You need something to hold a bullet and something to strike the end of the bullet to set off the charge. It’s that basic simplicity that makes it possible to make a gun out of pen and a rubber band (the instructions on how to make one are a Google search away) or a length of pipe and a spring, or… well you get the idea.
3D-printing a gun is actually the hard way forward at the moment. You need a 3D-printer and you need to work out how to use it. If you want to have any chance of it not exploding on first use, you need a good 3D-printer and that’ll cost more than a gun. If you want a half-way decent weapon you’ll need to invest a serious amount. Of course there are obvious reasons someone might be willing to do that to get an untraceable weapon; but again you can make something just as good with a visit to the hardware shop or your local stationery store.
In another couple of decades when we’re all routinely printing serious objects in metal, the capacity to just create an automatic weapon on a whim is a serious issue; and we need to address how we’ll deal with that. (One obvious option in a sensible country like Australia might be to seriously restrict access to ammunition as it is much harder to make at home.) But right now this is not the issue that it is being inflated into; and running around waving our arms in panic is not actually addressing the real problem (and in a country like America where real, manufactured guns are so easily available it’s not just pointless, it’s foolish).
Look, guns are a bad thing. Having them widely available just makes a bad thing infinitely worse. While controls over access to plans to 3D-print guns (such as those already in place in Australia) make some sense; like all information, the plans will inevitably fight their way free and into the public domain.
The real starting point for anything to do with gun control must be to create a society where guns are not casually carried or used, and where life is not valued more cheaply that spurious personal freedoms. We’re lucky in Australia: that is largely already the case, regardless of how many 3D-printers we have.
Anyway, here’s what I wrote in 2013 and I think it’s still pertinent today:
3D-printed guns – how much of a threat are they really?
Police are terrified that 3D-printed guns will make their way onto Sydney streets according to The Daily Telegraph.
So how real is this risk? Certainly it’s a pretty simple operation to get hold of the files to print a gun. So if you have a 3D-printer it would not take you long to produce something that would fire a bullet at least once. If you have a 3D-printer.
My own experience suggests that the process of getting up and running with a 3D-printer is not quite as simple as you might think, but neither is it outlandishly difficult. So certainly getting pretty quickly to the point of being able to print a gun is entirely plausible.
But, and here’s the nub of the question for me, why would you do so? Presumably the straightforward answer is that you want an illegal gun. So if we take that as a starting point, the question really becomes is a 3D-printer the easiest way to make an improvised gun. It turns out it probably isn’t.
A gun is not really a complex mechanism. You need something to hold a bullet, something to point the bullet in the right direction and something to strike the bullet to set it off. Search on Google and you’ll quickly find a great many ways of creating a gun out of readily available household goods. A visit to the hardware store would have you spoilt for choice. And putting the pieces together requires little more basic handyman skills and a your average household toolbox.
So why the level of terror from 3D printing? Partly I’m guessing it’s the fear of the new. Maybe some of it is because a 3D-printed gun looks more like a gun than what you get when you combine a nail, the casing from a torch and some gaffer-tape. And partly because it plays to an inchoate fear amongst some parts of the population that all this new technology can only lead to ‘bad things’.
Are the police right to fear 3D-printed guns? Sure, in the same way, they are right to fear any uncontrolled gun. But the sensible response is the one that the police have actually come out with – to point out that, in Australia at least, a gun is a gun is a gun, no matter where you got it from. Our firearms laws apply in exactly the same fashion whether you find a gun in the street, make one in your garage, or print one in your man-cave.